WWD.com/globe-news/digital/luxury-brands-acclimate-to-the-internet-2368144/

PARIS — Luxury brands may only just be learning to effectively communicate on the Internet, but they are chattering up a storm — and one voice is calling for more clarity.

This story first appeared in the November 11, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Brands have been so criticized for lateness, they are overcompensating,” said Uché Okonkwo, founder of the Paris-based consultancy Luxe Corp and author of “Luxury Online,” due out this month from Palgrave Macmillan. “Social media is a means to an end. Getting it right means first assimilating what it’s about, and that takes time. Brands are smart, which is why it’s so surprising when they go wrong online.”

Academic in tone, Okonkwo’s book examines luxury’s love-hate relationship with the Internet, how to make the most of the social Web and the art of selling the dream online.

One key to getting it right is for brands to accept that they have no control in cyberspace, save for their own site, and that the days of “dumping” a glossy campaign on viewers are over, she said. Images and videos are one-way; now it’s about dialogue and inclusiveness.

“The way words evoke desire, emotions and dreams is an art in itself,” Okonkwo said.

To brands that frantically blog, friend and tweet, or dress a “blogger” in the latest collection and send her out to talk about it when it’s not in stores yet, Okonkwo doesn’t mince words. “That’s advertising dressed as something else; it can only result in backlash,” she said. “Brands need to talk with, not at, consumers.”

So how does a business that is based on values of excellence, exclusivity, refinement, culture and limited access become inclusive without losing cachet?

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, said Okonkwo, who coaches companies to adapt to online realities. Content is important, but so is what she described as “luxe-mosphere.” Viktor & Rolf is one brand that has it, in her view. Others include Cartier, which offers downloadable music, and Louis Vuitton, with its offer of intellectually stimulating and rich content, such as Soundwalks, which reaches beyond bags and shoes.

But potential customers are already so far ahead that the luxury sector must find benchmarks in other industries, such as aerodynamics, or sites by Apple Inc., watchavenue.com, Porsche or Water Way of Life (wawali.es), she said.

“Today, the online user is controlling the tools to define their own experience, and they will demand meaning that transcends products, services and brand names,” Okonkwo said. “They are more Web site loyal than brand loyal. You can’t be exciting offline and boring online.”